Short Fiction Thoughts

This is an edited version of a post I made a year ago on my blog. I’ve edited out parts that referred to very specific things that were happening at that time, but kept the gist of it since I think my thoughts are pertinent to the types of things I’ll be discussing here. I’ve revised some spots where I feel I was unclear, or where I needed more text to complete my examples.

So there’s been some talk lately about the state of short fiction. I won’t link to anything since you should have no trouble finding recent articles/blog entries on the subject [this is from a year ago, and I think you’ll find many of those articles around again; it’s an annual event]. The most recent spate of articles talk about whether or not to support short fiction markets. Of course, my basic response to that is: yes. I am a short-fiction market, I would be remiss if I didn’t feel it should be supported.

There’s also been some recent activity along the lines of ‘short fiction is dying.’ And then reactionary (do not read that as ‘inflammatory,’ I just mean things written in response and I thought responsitory sounded too much like suppository so there you are) writing about how short fiction is just changing.

Now since I recently did my own drive for help, I’ve been avoiding posting on the subject since I didn’t want people to think I was asking for more*. But I do have some thoughts on the subject.

[More after the cut…]

First, supporting short fiction markets. Yep. This is good. And actually, no one has said don’t do this. There are a lot of markets out there. If you think you know them all, you probably actually know about half of them. I also understand that it’s difficult given that many people have a limited/set budget for leisure reading, and choosing between a new novel from an author you like and a magazine that may or not have stories you like from issue to issue leads many people to buying that new novel than subscribing to a magazine. Nonetheless, people feel that the magazines should be supported. Hopefully there are enough people that actually can support to keep the whole enterprise going.

Second, the state of the short-fiction market: dying or alive? My answer is: yes. Or more accurately: it’s changing. Yes, there are fewer people reading short fiction than ever**; i.e., subscription numbers are dropping, i.e., short fiction is dying. I see this opinion expressed by younger people/people newer to the field. This could mean two things: 1. they’re not experienced enough to understand the nuances of the market and to see who it’s changing, or 2. they’re our audience of the future and we should pay attention to the fact that our future audience isn’t interested in reading short-fiction in the format that’s being presented to them. One person even claimed that the fact was that everyone would rather prefer to read a novel over short fiction****. That may be. I don’t quite believe that’s the case, but I don’t know either.

And it’s not that more experienced hands in the field don’t claim that short fiction is dying. For the more experienced, I think there’s some basic reaction to the fact that the sheer numbers that individual titles used to enjoy in sales and subscriptions have just plummeted over the past few decades. This is true in book publishing, too. Once upon a time a midlist author only sold 80K – 100K in books. But as we’re faced with more titles being published, more books being published, the population growing, those numbers are bound to drop. (even without pulling in current interests that didn’t exist like the Internet, video games, and 400 channel cable tv packages)

I can also state (with I hope, some authority) that the number of well-made, short-fiction publications is fairly large and growing. Maybe it’s not the 1960s when everything had newsstand distribution, but there are a lot of things out there. And the small stuff is getting the same attention that’s given to the big stuff. This is true in the book world, too. The smaller, independent presses are getting the same attention (from reviewers, distributors, authors, agents, etc.) that the big NY houses are. That’s pretty significant, IMO. There’s a rich, fertile proving ground for up-and-coming writers (and some experienced ones who still write short fiction) out there that people should take advantage of*****. It is and it isn’t difficult to find. No, it’s no longer on the newsstand with all the other magazines. But it is online for people to find.

I think people need to alter their expectations on what a short-fiction publication should be. I think aiming for newsstand distribution, or even thousands (as opposed to tens or hundreds of thousands) of subscribers will only lead to heartbreak. It’s not an easy business. It costs a lot of money to start something like this (even if it’s only a few hundred dollars a year, that’s a lot of money to most people, particularly when it all comes out of your pocket). I think even expecting to break even (or mostly even) quicker than five years****** is patently ridiculous. Particularly if you coming to the field with no experience in it.

This is not meant as damning words for any individual. I’ve seen a lot of publications start and end while I’ve been doing mine. I know that it’s rare for small magazines to survive beyond a few issues. It happens.

We may be entering into a time where professional-paying short-fiction markets are extremely difficult to keep running. And certainly tough to start. And despite the respect that Electric Velocipede seems to garner, the truth is I’ll never see a submission form Robert Silverberg, or China Mieville, or Richard Morgan, or Scott Lynch, or John Scalzi, or [insert name here].

This is slightly unfair, as most of the writers I just mentioned just don’t write short fiction. But I’m also not a big enough venue for what they do. And I’m ok with that. I’d be thrilled to death to get a submission from anyone in that list; but I don’t expect it. Part of the thrill I get from publishing EV is finding the author that no one’s heard of before. This makes it tougher to sell lots of copies since people want a known quantity, but again, that’s not why I started this.

* I’ll always take more, it’s just not always right to ask for it.

** I contend that there are actually fewer people reading in general than ever; they’re just BUYING more books***.

*** And of course, more books are published each year than the previous, so buying more sort of falls hand in hand with that.

**** I can’t speak for anyone but me, but these days, I cannot get into a novel. I’d rather read short fiction every day. I acquire a lot of novels, but I read almost none of them. The thought of reading a novel just makes me freeze up like a panic attack. Yuk.

***** Just go to Ralan (who also likes support) and see the number of markets.

****** I’ve been doing this for almost six years now, and I’m getting close to breaking even********.

******* And I’m talking about print publications. Not that online publications don’t have costs, but they don’t face rising printing costs, rising shipping costs, etc. that a print publication faces.


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